The Laundromat
(Diane Josefowicz)

Verity La Lies to Live By

(Edited by Laura McPhee-Browne)

Once upon a time, I made a wish, an uncareful wish, in the Harder Laundromat.

I wanted to throw a party for my students. Since September, they’d attended my chemistry tutorial, created to fill an empty afternoon slot while rounding out my practicum year. A party to celebrate the end of all this dullness —  school year, tutorial, practicum — seemed like a nice thing. If I privately considered it a celebration of the end of my own training, that was my business. I didn’t need to make it about me. But I felt a celebration was in order, and one day I bubbled over, confessing my idea to Lynne.

I’ve never actually thrown a party, I told her.

Parties aren’t hard, she said. Definitely not as hard as chemistry. Tell you what. Next week we’ll throw one here at the laundromat. Think of it as a dry run.

I caught our reflection in the plate glass window: two women sitting on plastic lawn chairs, legs crossed left over right, right over left. Behind us, the dryers spinning, perfuming the air with fabric softener and scorch.

Let’s do it in two weeks, I told Lynne. Maybe you’ll forget in the meantime.

Lynne laughed. You chicken.

The next time I visited, I found a sign pinned to the corkboard. Lynne’s loopy, sudsy handwriting announced: LET’S PARTY HARDER!

OPEN MIC, the sign continued. OPEN BAR. OPEN HEART. SNAX!

I had been careless, and now I was stuck.

 

Harder sits at the cross of two roads along a river. When I lived there, the town could still boast an operational wool mill along with the usual necessaries — church, gas station, pizza parlour, grocery store. The teachers’ college, where I was finishing my degree, was an uphill mile from town, not far from the artists’ colony. From the spotty clothes spinning in the dryers, you could tell that the artists were mostly painters, though there were others, too: writers, poets.

The laundromat took up the first floor of a narrow, nondescript two-story house with a steeply pitched roof. A plate glass window gave onto a covered porch with a mild sag. On the roof, a 1950s era sign featured a brunette folding laundry, both the figure and the pile reduced to the minimum number of marks needed to suggest the tableau. During my time in Harder, the porch was always swept neat. Even so, people didn’t gather there, perhaps because the building faced west, leaving it in shadow for most of the day.

If the exterior was quiet, the laundromat’s interior was loud with weird life. The proprietors left notes around — instructions for emergencies, exhortations to keep the place clean; which people mostly did, though the corners were always a little cobweb-struck. At the high windows in the back, coils of flypaper hung down, heavy with the fat flies that emerged annually in the summer from attics where they lived all winter long. Beyond the flypaper, people didn’t resist them. Exterminations were expensive, and they just came back anyway. To be well and truly rid of them, you had to rebuild your house, which no one had the inclination to do, regardless of the money, which no one had any of either. Houses were passed from parents to children over many generations. The people lived in the houses and their flies lived in the interstices, in attic nooks and behind clapboards. No one liked the flies, but they were inalienable. Harder was a staying place — no exorcisms, no exterminations. Even after I left, something of the place remained with me, a dormant fly in some inner recess.

The first Friday I was alone with Lynne at the laundromat, I stacked my quarters on the washer I preferred, toward the front. Two over, Lynne was frantic, waving an athletic sock. A fly was chasing her.

These damn flies!

She cut me at the soap dispenser.

Hey, I said.

She ignored me.

Shoo! Shoo!

With each ‘Shoo’ Lynne dropped another quarter in the slot. She pulled the lever and a box of soap powder tumbled from the machine. She took it and walked off. A fly landed on her head. She ignored that, too.

It was a slim basis for a friendship.

I took a seat near Lynne, who was flipping the pages of Us Weekly.

These flies, I said.

You can’t have been here long if you’re still worried about them. Where you from, honey?

I’m getting a masters at the college, I said. In education.

You don’t have your own washer-dryer?

Not yet.

I preferred Friday nights for laundry because the laundromat was usually empty. But after that first conversation, Lynne showed up every Friday night. I decided to make the best of it. It wasn’t like I had so many friends in Harder.

Lynne, it turned out, was a gas. She dressed young and styled herself ‘zany’ in the way of pretty women who are afraid of seeming cold. She played broad, wiggling her hips while pushing her damp clothes in a rolling cart, taking long strides that were none too steady because, of course, she was wearing stilettos. To a laundromat. On a Friday night. Zany. She confided that she was saving up for a Botox shot to erase a tiny line between her eyebrows.

If I don’t get it taken care of, she said, I’ll have a terrible resting bitch face. I mean, it’s already pretty bad. Not that I care. But I’m not resting, bitches. I can rest when I’m dead!

 

Between trips to the laundromat, I considered the personal details I wanted to share with Lynne. It seemed okay to say that I was a teacher in training, that my position was temporary, just for the year. I didn’t mind telling her about my students, how we made volcanoes from vinegar and baking soda, and how, despite the drama of the bubbling lava, the papier-mâché exterior, painted carefully with poster paint, became the locus of the most serious effort. We filled Tupperware containers with homemade slime and observed its behaviour on different surfaces — a plastic bag, a window, a kickball. We made experiments with cast-off papers I purchased from a man smoking a cigarette in the front office of a shuttered mill. The whole room was filled, floor to ceiling, with boxes of overstock, yet he continued to light up. Was he oblivious to the danger? Courting it?

It’s a hard town, Lynne intoned. We have in the past hit upon some hard times.

I could only nod. What did I know? Lynne looked at me oddly, as if to remind me of this danger, of my presuming to know. She liked to lord it over me, her status as a native. But since we both knew my presence in Harder was only temporary, and that I would be the one to leave, not her, I let her think what she wanted.

Our Fridays took on heft and definition, like an onion accreting layers underground. Soon we had fellow travellers. One I’ll never forget: a girl of late middle-school vintage with brown hair, olive skin, and a dragged-on look. Every week she ran a little pile of black clothing — socks, underwear, one pair of jeans, three black t-shirts, and an oversized sweatshirt that said HARDER—through the machines. She wore pyjamas under her big coat. Every week she stayed for a second wash cycle, changing into a set of clean clothes in order to wash the pyjamas. No mother, I supposed. Or maybe a terrible stepmother. Someone who wouldn’t let her use the washer-dryer. The girl seemed so burdened I couldn’t even bring myself to ask her name. Maybe that was the right thing to do, to leave her with that much privacy. My own mother had made a bludgeon out of mine, calling Zinnia, Zinnia, until I wanted to spit.

As the winter rolled on, Lynne dreamed up schemes and implemented them. A set of steel shelves appeared in front of the plate glass window, each shelf topped with a plank. To this Lynne added an overachieving pothos vine in a chipped pot. Every week she planted two or three smaller pots with its cuttings. She posted help-wanteds on the corkboard and collected half-bags of potting soil, worm casings, extra pots, whatever folks had sitting around. One night, Lynne extracted an S-hook from her purse and dangled it from a strut. It was just the size to hang the watering can that arrived the next day. Someone’s dog had chewed it — you could see the bite marks — but it was serviceable. A fire extinguisher appeared next. It was a thoughtful addition. The dryers did tend to get things a little too dry, and it was easy to fail to pay attention.

Lynne posted a notice for a Tuesday night poetry slam and a bunch of people from the artist colony showed up with poems folded into smudged squares. They stood before the shelves of plants reading to anyone who happened to be there, and made themselves beloved by bringing boxed wine and flasks of Jim Beam that they passed around. One man took a sip and wiped his mouth with the poem he’d just read. I fell in love immediately, though it was the sort of falling that I was used to, a falling that cost me nothing because it was only a sort of theatrical drop from which I knew how to recover, and so it did not vex me.

 

With so much going on, it seemed that Lynne had forgotten about the party. Then she took me aside and asked me to review her shopping list.

So this is really happening?

You betcha.

I ran my eyes over the list — booze, ice, paper products.

Snax?

We’ll set out a bag of chips and a big jar of salsa. I must have about ten of them at home. People will bring what they like. There’s always too much.

Something slammed into the glass, yawing it, and shot back, leaving behind a web of cracks. At the centre of the web was a dark hole where fresh air rushed in with a smell like wet stones.

What the fuck, said Lynne.

In the uncracked portion of the glass, a woman half-hidden by the plants wore a startled look. It took a moment for me to realise that woman was me. A shadow slipped across the street. A pale, feminine face turned toward us, beneath spiky white hair gelled up in a style that was popular decades ago. The light from laundromat’s sign blue-sheened her motorcycle jacket.

I hooked my bag of laundry under one arm and went out. It was a clear night tinseled with stars. On the porch I tripped over an empty can. When I picked it up, it rattled. I peered into the hole, turning the can in the light. Inside were smooth, round river pebbles. The can was dented on one side, where it had hit the window.

I set the can on the porch and swung my foot until it connected, arcing the can into the air. It was a good feeling, making contact. But all the way back to my room, I kept hearing that can. It rattled behind me as I crossed the bridge. As I hurried, so did the can. Turning back, I saw nothing, and nothing again. Yet the sound followed me, and then, as I ran, tilting, around the final corner, that can rattled right across the street.

The next day Lynne texted: Meet me tonight.

I thought: Oh, God.

I texted back: Sure thing. It’s towels night anyway.

I’m sorry about this, Lynne said when she arrived, gesturing toward the broken window. She was disheveled, her bare feet stuck into an old pair of sneakers. Shadows darkened the hollows beneath her eyes.

It’s my daughter’s doing. All she ever wanted was to get the hell out of Harder. Why she’s back now, I’ll never know. Wish she’d just stay gone.

Lynne muttered about her daughter’s situation, legalities that bored and frightened me. Intimations of the parole board.

Her real name’s Mabel, Lynne said, but she changed it at fifteen to Maybelle. This was right after she declared her emancipation. I don’t know what she calls herself now. Most of the time she was a shit.

A kid declaring emancipation sounded like bad news. A scene unfolded in my mind: the heavy slam of a front door, a Hefty bag stuffed with clothes and slung over the shoulder, the whiff of burnt plastic as it came toward the face.

So, I said. What about Mabel?

Lynne paused to swallow a mouthful of something invisible and toxic.

Mabel was a hard child, she said. Never met a child so hard. She went looking for her father, that was her first order of business, and she sent a card when she found him. Or thought she did. I don’t know the particulars, so I’ll just say it did not work out the way she’d hoped. She’s twenty-five now, all grown up I expect. Haven’t laid eyes on her in almost a decade. Not sure she’d recognise me.

She’d recognise you.

Oh, I don’t know. What do I know, though? One night when she was small I took her outside. It was dusk, early summer, and we’d been in the house all day because she had a fever. But the night was warm and her temp was down so I thought we’d have some fun. Brought two mason jars with lids. Told her we’d catch fireflies.

My plan was to let her run around in the hedges while I did something else. My roses were in full bloom, the first of the season. I wanted to save a few. I heard you could dry them in Epsom salts and that way they would last forever. I filled a shoebox with Epsom salts, set it on the step, and surveyed my roses. Mabel was right beside me, staring.

Mabel, I told her, take your jar and see if you can catch a firefly.

She wouldn’t move. She just stood there. I tried to show her how to sweep the jar through the dark at the foot of the hedge, where the flies like to be. Look, I said. You just slap the lid on, quick, and see what you can catch—

There was a firefly right in my jar.

But when I looked up, her hand was in the box, and then it was in her mouth. Sugar, she said, the white grains falling from her hand. You know Epsom salts taste vile, nothing like sugar. I said, Don’t. But Mabel just kept going. She fisted the stuff into her palm and pressed it to her mouth. Kept staring. Kept chewing.

And now she’s back, Lynne said.

Outside, through the big window, the sky was star-scattered, as if Mabel had come back to Harder just to fling that handful of salt into the sky.

When evil shows up in fairy tales it’s always moving fast. Usually it’s rolling.

I’m pretty sure it was her who broke that window, Lynne said.

The next day the police took their report. Naturally I got a call to come in. The officer was polite enough but there was no mistaking the expectation that I would give my version of events. The conversation was quick. The cop who took my statement didn’t take a single note, only twisted her long braid around her finger. I didn’t say anything about the can I saw filled with stones. Later I went over the river and back again, wondering if I’d dreamt the whole thing.

 

The night of the party, some folks showed up with their dirty clothes and got the machines going. Lynne arrived with a dozen bottles of Rolling Rock that she arranged in a washer filled with ice. Folks set six packs and bags of chips on the counter. Even the little girl was there, pushing quarters into the machines and setting them off so the place was loud with washing. Everywhere you looked, foamy waves lolled behind the glass windows of the machines.

Lynne poked my arm. See? It’s not so hard to throw a party.

The lights went out. The window collapsed. The plant shelves tipped and crashed, and the shattered pots disgorged their contents — a bird’s nest fern, a gardenia. Suddenly, the place was blazing. The fire cracked around me. I stubbed my toe on something heavy. Someone — I think it was the man with poems in his pockets — found the fire extinguisher and the room disappeared beneath a blanket of white foam. Lynne sped out on those heels of hers, shouting her daughter’s name.

 


Diane Josefowicz’s work has appeared in Fence, Conjunctions, Saint Ann’s Review, Dame, Necessary Fiction, Singapore Unbound, and elsewhere. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.